A Reluctant Imperialist: Justice Elias Finley Johnson and China's May 30th Movement

TriCollege Digital Repository

Title: A Reluctant Imperialist: Justice Elias Finley Johnson and China's May 30th Movement
Author: Woerner, Zachary
Advisor: Smith, Paul Jacov
Department: Haverford College. Dept. of History
Type: Thesis (B.A.)
Issue Date: 2012
Abstract: The May 30th Movement of 1925 is often cited as a watershed event that marked the ascent of Chinese Nationalism. On this day in Shanghai, China, British police opened fire on a large crowd of student protesters, killing eleven. Prior to this event, foreigners in China had enjoyed many privileges established by treaties, starting in 1842 with the Treaty of Nanjing. Concessions such as extraterritoriality were a constant source of resentment for Chinese Nationals. However, in the ensuing days, Shanghai and the rest of China reacted violently, jeopardizing the foreign position in China. The judicial inquiry into the May 30th Movement included three judges: American Justice Elias Finley Johnson, British Justice Henry Gollan, and Japanese Justice Kintaro Suga. The investigation was organized with the purpose of controlling the meaning of the May 30th Movement and maintaining foreign privilege in China. This thesis focuses on Johnson and his contrarian report, attempting to resolve the paradox of why Johnson, as an imperial agent in the Philippines, had delivered a report perceived to be against foreign concessions in China. Colonial administrators were often faced with the duality of having to compromise their ideology in the face of the realist demands of maintaining an empire. However, Johnson, when faced with the choice of ideology and the maintenance of foreign interests in China, stayed true to his principles of Wilsonian Democracy. In his report, Johnson presents a story of the May 30th Movement empathetic to the Chinese people. Analyzing the nature of the disturbance within a wider causal history, Johnson hoped to hold true to his principles of Wilsonian emphasis on the sanctity of international law and national self-determination. His opinion fell outside of the scope of the official history that was required of the judicial inquiry. As such, his report provoked a highly negative response from those whose interests were at stake in China. Johnson represents a rare case of an administrator who held to his individual precepts and acted contrary to the imperial prerogative of the judicial inquiry. Still, Johnson's report was limited in that it represented United States projections of hopes and fears onto the tumultuous events of the period. Although acting mostly as an instrument in US foreign policy, he also acted out of personal conviction. His view was the composite of a belief in China's ability to adequately work within Western legal conceptions (free of foreign supervision), and his decision to focus on a broader causal story to explain the nature of the May 30th Movement.
Subject: Johnson, Elias Finley, 1861-1933
Subject: China -- History -- May Thirtieth movement, 1925
Terms of Use:
Permanent URL:

Files in this item

Files Description Size Format
2012WoernerZ_thesis.pdf Thesis (unrestricted) 1.032Mb PDF
2012WoernerZ_release.pdf **Archive Staff Only** 106.4Kb PDF


Woerner, Zachary. "A Reluctant Imperialist: Justice Elias Finley Johnson and China's May 30th Movement". 2012. Available electronically from

This item appears in the following Collection(s) Except where otherwise noted, this item's license is described as


Advanced Search


My Account